May 24, 2011
Humiliation: Cruel and Unjust Punishment
In late February of this year, the story of James Mond, III, from Tampa, Florida, made headlines. The parents of this 14-year-old made him stand on a street corner with a humiliating sign around him in order to pressure him to do better in school. Sparks fly whenever people comment on this issue. Many swear by this disciplinary tactic because in many cases, it works. The kids feel so bad that they do whatever the parents want them to do just to avoid future humiliation. Mond, in fact, promised his parents that he’d do better in school if they made him stop, and the Tampa Bay article states his F in history went up to a D.
I’m not interested in arguing whether certain parents are emotionally abusive or not. I care about survivors whose parents repeatedly humiliated them and claimed this was acceptable discipline. There’s too much focus on the results, which is mostly what the punishing parents, the media, and the people commenting care about. This completely ignores the devastating experience of humiliation, which can have severe emotional effects.
What Humiliation Is Really Like
Donald Klein (now deceased) was a clinical psychologist who was active in an organization called Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS). This organization is for academics and practitioners who work to educate, reduce, and eventually eradicate humiliating practices globally. Klein wrote a 30-page report on what he called the Humiliation Dynamic, which describes what the experience of humiliation really involves.
Klein cites a 1987 article by Aaron Lazare in the Archives of Internal Medicine about humiliation and shame. The study was in a medical setting, but the implications are relevant to any situation. Lazare cites five painful aspects of the humiliation experience:
- Feeling exposed, like you’re walking around in public naked
- Feeling deficient, like there’s something wrong with you
- Feeling degraded, like you’re less than everyone else
- Feeling attacked, like everyone’s against you
- Feeling ashamed, like you just want to disappear
Repetitive humiliation isn’t just something we experience and then push aside. Klein tells us that “[t]o be humiliated is to lose face, that is, to suffer damage to your identity and sense of self.” We may be able to recover our sense of identity from one humiliation episode, but to go through them repeatedly eats away at our sense of worth. We feel we’re being singled out because we’re especially bad and deserve to repeatedly feel like crap.
Humiliation is also incredibly intrusive. “To be humiliated,” Klein says, “is to have your personal boundaries violated and your personal space invaded.” When we’ve done something wrong and realize it, we need time and space to admit the wrong, feel bad about it, understand what we can learn from it, and let it go. When we’re humiliated, that time and space is denied us, and we feel like a performing animal on show for the public’s entertainment.
Klein identifies a number of destructive consequences from humiliation. While abusive parents may be able to argue that these won’t happen from one or two episodes of humiliation, the more times we’re humiliated, the more likely we’ll suffer from one or more of these consequences:
- Suspicion and paranoia about people’s motives
- Hostility towards people
- Vengefulness that could lead to a pattern of vengeful behaviors, including abuse
- Anxiety, especially fear of others
Klein states that all of these destructive reactions have rage at the heart of them, whether turned outwards towards others (the first three) or inwards towards ourselves (the last four). The severity of the experience is what makes it an effective punishment. It also makes it a destructive one. The anger eats away at us to the point where we hate those around us and/or hate ourselves.
Facts About Abusers Who Humiliate
As I noted earlier, too much emphasis is placed on the (often successful) effects of this cruel form of punishment. Let’s ignore the effects and get back to being human. Abusive parents who repeatedly humiliate their children (whether they’re kids or adults) are telling us a lot about their own weaknesses.
They don”t care about how we feel. They either can’t empathize or push aside their empathy so that they can wield their power. Nonabusers can feel the pain of humiliation deep enough to make the moral choice not to hurt those they care about in this way. Abusers only care about how they feel and what they want.
They can’t handle their anger. Humiliating a child is usually a sign of deep anger, unless the parent is psychotic or has some other mental health problem that makes them actually enjoy hurting other people. Abusive parents use humiliation to make their lives easier and make them feel powerful. They humiliate their child, the child obeys, the conflict is solved, and they feel relief from their anger.
Humiliation is just plain nasty. I will never understand why this simple fact is so often ignored. Even those who argue against humiliation as a way to get a child to obey will defend their position by talking about how it’s not effective. To hell with whether it works or not. It hurts when someone makes us feel like crap; it doesn’t matter what we did. When it’s a caregiver who’s supposed to love us, it hurts even worse.
Klein also emphasizes that fear of humiliation is as oppressive as experiencing it. “Merely participating in or observing someone else’s humiliation is enough.” From an abusive parent’s point of view, this gives double the value. They make their other kids witness the humiliation of their brother or sister and they’re scared off from doing the same thing. They may also suffer some of the same consequences as the child who was humiliated, including mistrust and hostility towards others, anxiety, and depression, because they know that the hatchet hangs over them and can come down on their heads at any time
Getting Rid of the Shit from Humiliation
Repetitive humiliation in our childhood is a serious issue. It’s one of the few in-your-face emotionally abusive tactics out there. With very few exceptions (for instance, apologizing to the owner of a store for stealing, which we can see has some justification), humiliation is a punishment that doesn’t fit the crime. Doing badly in school, breaking something, making a mess, violating a curfew, and sneaking sweets aren’t just causes for humiliation.
Healing from the repeated humiliation that our parents inflicted on us involves first of all acknowledging that we felt humiliated. This may not be as straightforward as we think because it means setting aside any feelings of guilt and shame for what we did. In his article, Klein makes an interesting observation about how shame and humiliation are different. Both involve feeling bad about ourselves, but he claims that we generally feel that we deserve to feel bad when we feel ashamed whereas we don’t feel like we deserve to feel humiliated.
This expresses the conflicts that we so often feel when we’re humiliated. On the one hand, we feel ashamed of what we did, whether it’s really as bad as our abusive parents tell us it is or not. On the other, we know there’s something unfair about being humiliated because we know that it’s just plain nasty, no matter what our parents’ justification of it is.
By separating humiliation from shame, we can acknowledge that we didn’t deserve to be humiliated. At the same time, we acknowledge that we were fallible human beings and not amoral little monsters, like our abusive parents may have made us feel. We have to care about how we felt because our caregivers didn’t. We can’t let guilt interfere with that.
We can then work on letting go of the anger from the repetitive humiliation. I think much of that anger has to do with feeling like everyone around us agrees with our abusers that we deserve to be hurt for making a mistake or misbehaving. If we acknowledge that we didn’t deserve to be treated in such a nasty way, we can let that part of our anger go.
We can also work on letting go of the shame and guilt for whatever it was we did. If the crime doesn’t fit the punishment then we need to see that. If our crime was serious, like stealing, then we need to acknowledge that we screwed up but we were kids. Kids are allowed to screw up sometimes without worrying about their caregivers humiliating them. Learning from our mistakes has nothing to do with shame, which isn’t the same as guilt. Guilt we can learn from; shame is shit we don’t need.
That, perhaps, is the take-home lesson from this post. Humiliation links human fallibility to shame. While none of us can escape moments of embarrassment in life, when they happen naturally, we can take a deep breath and accept them as part of life. But parents who repeatedly inflict humiliation in order to control their children are using them to soothe their anger, not teaching them a lesson. If we’re to heal from repetitive humiliation in our past, we have to recognize that we were used.